John 1: 43 – 51 Septima, Dorothy, and Ella   January 17, 2021


Septima, Dorothy, and Ella

John 1: 43 – 51


(preached on January 17, 2021)


In our gospel passage for today, from John, Jesus calls the two disciples Philip and Nathanael.  Philip is eager to sign on to follow Jesus.  He’s heard about Jesus from his friends Andrew and Simon.  They were all from the village of Bethsaida.  But Nathanael is from Cana.  When he hears about Jesus of Nazareth, he’s skeptical.  You see, Nazareth and Cana were rival villages.  So Nathanael asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”


Nathanael has his doubts about people from that rival village.  We can understand that.  We humans tend to stick to people we know, to our own kind, you might say our own tribe.  We tend to be skeptical, even suspicious, of those who don’t belong to our tribe.


When I was growing up, we didn’t have a village that was a rival to our village, but my school definitely had a rival school.  I went to an all-girls school named Winchester Thurston.  Just down the road was another all-girls school, named Ellis.  We were great rivals, especially in sports.  The basketball game between our team and the girls from Ellis was one of the high points of the year.  We didn’t have much good to say about those Ellis girls.  We could well have asked a question like Nathanael’s: could anything good could come out of Ellis?


When I hear Nathanael’s question in our passage for today, I think about our human tendency to be skeptical, or even downright suspicious, of somebody from another village, or tribe.  In the passage, Nathanael may be asking the question playfully.  Maybe he’s giving Philip a hard time, as if to say, what are you doing hanging around with this guy from Nazareth?  But sometimes there’s nothing playful about our suspicions of those who are from another tribe, or another race.  Sometimes our suspicions of people from another place, or of another race, have grown into prejudice, hatred, and violence.   In our country, horrific acts of racial injustice have occurred.  The struggle for racial justice still goes on today.


This weekend we honor the legacy of a leader in the struggle for racial justice who was tragically murdered at the peak of his career: the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  King is the best known leader of the civil rights movement.  It’s good to set aside a day to reflect on his accomplishments.


But in the fight for justice a good leader never acts alone.  Every movement relies on hundreds of hardworking people behind the scenes: people who make phone calls and knock on doors and write letters and organize marches. The civil rights movement was empowered by hundreds of people like that: unsung heroes and heroines.   This morning I’d like to share with you a little about three women who were instrumental in the civil rights movement. They are Septima Clark, Dorothy Height, and Ella Baker.


Until a month ago, I had never heard of these women.  I learned about them from a painting featured in The Christian Century magazine.  The painting is part of a traveling exhibit called “Icons of the Civil Rights Movement.”  The artist hopes to educate Americans about men and women who worked in the struggle for civil rights, many of them behind the scenes.


All three of these women:  Septima, Dorothy, and Ella, were African American.  They were born in the South around the turn of the twentieth century.  Two of them grew up in the world of Jim Crow.  That means they grew up in a world where they couldn’t drink from the same drinking fountains or use the same rest rooms or go to the same schools as white people.  They grew up in a world where facilities for black people were always worse than facilities for white people: dirtier and much more poorly maintained.


That was the world of Jim Crow, the world into which Septima Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1889.  Her father had been enslaved.  After Clark graduated from high school, she went to work teaching in schools out in the country.  As an African American, she wasn’t allowed to teach in the schools of Charleston.  Clark taught children, but she also developed a method of teaching adults to read and write, using non-traditional materials like the Sears Roebuck catalog.


Later, she got involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP.  She fought for equal pay for black teachers, and for the right of black teachers to become school principals.  In 1956, South Carolina passed a law barring anyone who worked for the state from doing civil rights work.  At that point Clark had been teaching for forty years.  She refused to leave the NAACP.  She was fired and lost her pension.


Clark also started Citizenship Schools.  At these schools, students didn’t just learn to read.  They learned about their rights as citizens.  Clark earned advanced degrees and rose to national prominence.  She became Director of Education and Teaching for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  Later she fought for reinstatement of her back salary and pension and got it.  She was elected to two terms on the Charleston County School Board.


Today a charter school is named for Septima Clark, along with a Parkway and a park in Charleston.  And a minor planet!  The planet 6238 Septimaclark, is named in her honor.


Dorothy Height was born fourteen years after Septima Clark.  She didn’t grow up in the segregated South because her parents moved to western Pennsylvania, where the schools she attended were integrated.  But Height also experienced segregation.  As a teenager, she was active in the YWCA.  She was elected President of one of the clubs at the Y, but because she was black, she wasn’t allowed to swim in the pool.


Height earned a college degree in educational psychology. She went to work at the New York City Department of Welfare.  She remained active in the YWCA, fighting against injustice based on race.  She facilitated meetings, held workshops, and wrote pamphlets.  Her work was aimed at helping white YWCA members overcome their fears and bring their daily activities in line with the Y’s principles of racial equality.


Perhaps her greatest achievement was a program called Wednesdays in Mississippi, which brought white women and black women together.  Groups of women, of both races and different faiths, would travel from the North to Mississippi.  They met with black and white women from the South.  The women from the North went home with a fresh commitment to social and racial justice.


The third of these unsung heroines, Ella Baker, has been called “one of the most important leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman of the civil rights movement.” She grew up in Virginia and North Carolina.  She listened to her grandmother’s horror stories of life as an enslaved person.


Like Septima Clark, Baker joined the NAACP, working as a secretary. Soon she began traveling for the organization.  She recruited members, raised money, and organized local chapters.  She worked with sharecroppers and tenant farmers.  She believed that those who were being oppressed were the best people to decide what action to take, as she put it, “to get out from under the heel of their oppressor.”  She formed a network of people who would be vital in the fight for civil rights.


Like Clark, Baker worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and she was instrumental in founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the group that coordinated the Freedom Rides in 1961.


Baker’s legacy goes on in the work of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, California, and the Ella Baker House, a community center for at-risk youth in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester.


When Nathanael first heard about Jesus, he asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  He was skeptical of anyone outside his village, outside his tribe.  We can understand his response.  But that same response can grow into prejudice, like the racial prejudice that has plagued our country since the very beginning.  As we work today to overcome that prejudice, we give thanks to God for Septima, Dorothy, and Ella, for the work they carried out with courage and grace.


Rev. Elva Merry Pawle

Epiphany 2


“The Holly and the Ivy” Benjamin Jacques

Maria Ferrante, Soprano           

Joyce Carpenter-Henderson, Pianist